Hopping in '66

It was January in '66. Had just met a guy from Connecticut that was on his way to Europe hoping to work on a freighter and was heading to New Orleans by freight train, an idea that intrigued me.

It was my first semester in college, had several real tough classes and wasn't doing very well. Plus, I still had the wanderlust having spent the previous summer just out of high school hitchhiking with a buddy around the entire US. I could live on a dollar a day, but in those days, a McDonalds hamburger was $.15, fries were $.11, and a malt was $.21. A full meal was roughly $.65. Comic books were still $.10. Minimum wage was $1.25/hr. Hard to imagine.

Scott hung around long enough for my first disgraceful semester to end and then we headed out at the beginning of February. We got a ride up the Long Beach CA freeway and were dropped off on the north side of the Santa Fe yard. No problem grabbing our packs and running down the overpass into the yard. I understand today that yard is mostly containers and recently verified that on a Mapquest aerial photo, but back then, it was just a normal yard.

Also no problem finding a boxcar, nor need I describe to many of you the rush of your first ride as you head out. It was also dark as we pulled out, my partner yet having to inform me about proper boxcar bathroom etiquette.

I didn't even hang onto the door as I stood there, center stage, The General firmly in hand, as a RR crossing sneaked up on me with no fewer than a dozen cars shining their headlights as the boxcar moved me from stage left to right. Had I bowed to the applause of all the honking horns, I probably would have tumbled right out the door.

What I still remember of that leg was pulling into Needles and my buddy telling me how the train went dead as the air bled off. It was damn cold in February, now the middle of the night. Right next to the Harvey House was a funky little all night restaurant, didn't seem more than 15' square as I think back. Sure needed a place to warm up.

I drove through Needles about 5 years ago, the Harvey house fenced off, the restaurant gone, but one old timer sitting on a park bench, chewing and spitting, remembered that restaurant having been there. But damn, if I remember it being there, what does that make me?

After fried eggs and a cup of hot coffee, we went back to the yard, not 200' away and waited for another train; still damn cold. What rolled in was a unit train of nothing but sealed boxcars. You never see that today, a train that's ALL boxcars. Everything was sealed, just not our day. What we did see near the head end was about 4 Army 2 ton pick-up trucks chained to flat cars. That was our only chance at anything rideable so I just followed my buddy's lead. Had I to do it over again, I would have rolled out somewhere and waited till morning for a better train.

BUT, now as the train headed out we caught a boxcar ladder on the fly about mid-train and made it up the ladder to the catwalk on top. Back then, all the boxcars still had catwalks, and it was really no big deal hopping from car to car, heavy packs and all, even with the train bouncing along on jointed rail. I don't recall any moon, but fortunately I never left home without my Eveready double "C" cell handy-dandy Chrome plated real steel flashlight.

NEXT, we hit a real snag. I'd never seen boxcars with extended couplers before but it was way too far to jump across. It must have been at least 10' from one boxcar to the next. What to do? So we climbed back down the ladder to the center platform between the cars to work it all out. By now, the train had been up to speed for some time, just hauling ass across the desert, temperature down into the 20's, let alone the wind chill factor with the only source of shelter being the beds of those pick-up trucks still about 10 cars ahead.

I gave Scott my flashlight as he stood on the platform and shined the flashlight on the drawbar as I started my "highwire" act balancing along with my pack, stepping over the couplings to the next drawbar and onto the next platform. Damn, I was 18 years old and invincible, and what a rush, bouncing along, looking down halfway across, those rails just a few feet below me. No way I ever thought I'd wind up hamburger for the buzzards. My first ride, so wasn't this how it was done?

THEN, once safely across, Scott had to throw me the lit flashlight, which I damn well had better catch, and I held it for him, shining the path as he slowly inched his way across in a halfway crouch, his knees taking up the slack as the couplers bounced up and down and back and forth.

2 (that is two) more cars we still had to do all this. To this day, if I dwell on these thoughts too much, my hands break out in a sweat. I can hardly type now with my sticky hands for this probably falls under the all time "Stupid Kid Tricks". Even now I still get goose bumps picturing all this.

That flashlight I purposely kept for many years naming it my "Good Luck" flashlight. I have a habit of saving memento's, keepsakes, or trinkets that remind me of accomplishments and milestones in my life. (I don't however save the occasional used condom)

Anyhow, we finally made it up to those Army trucks, not much warmer, but at least some break from the wind and we could roll out flat. Come daylight, we were on our way to Gallup, snow on the ground which is where we got off.

I remember Scott and I hitching to Oklahoma where he stayed with a girlfriend saying he'd catch up in a few days. I went on to New Orleans, staying one night along the way as a "sleeper" in the Lawton OK jail, a real mistake being fresh meat and a much bigger jail than I thought. The year before, it wasn't uncommon for me to stay over in some Mayberry midwestern town as a "sleeper", where I was the only one in the klink.

Before e-mail and cellphones, one of the only ways to receive messages was c/o General Delivery at the Post Office. Scott told me one trick however. He said if I had to leave a message where to meet him in New Orleans, I was to go to the phone booth nearest the main entrance at the Greyhound Bus Station, look up his last name and write a message on that page in the phone book.

I'd met someone in New Orleans and we hung out together for a few days. I'd asked him to watch my pack for a minute while I ran across the street and when I came back a few minutes later, he and my pack were gone. He had said he was headed to Florida, so I immediately hit the road hoping to catch him alongside the highway. (Fewer interstates in those days) No way I wanted to head back across that cold with just the clothes on my back. I essentially gave up when I caught a late night ride all the way to Palm Beach Florida. I got hired that same day at the Palm Beach Biltmore as an elevator boy and was given room and board.

You've seen the kind in old movies; it was one of those old fashioned elevators with a crank handle where it was a real art lining up your elevator with the hotel floor. I even got to wear one of those double breasted green suits with brass buttons and a monkey hat.

I had to work with Frank, an old Looney Tune geezer that had his elevator adjacent mine since there were two at each end of the hotel. He was the only guy I've ever known that could kick himself in the ass and lift himself a foot off the ground. I don't know how he kept getting away with insulting all the rich society Grand Dames whenever they asked him directions to the "Powder Room". He'd always end his directions as they'd start to leave with, "Oh Madam?!" "Yes, my good man." "Just mention my name, and you'll get a good seat."

Damn if I didn't have fun on the late shift when I went up to the top floor with a cardboard box full of glass, parking my elevator about 2 feet above the hotel floor, hopping down, and dropping that box of glass 14 stories down the elevator shaft. It sure lit up the operator's switchboard and of course, I knew nothing - absolutely nothing!

After a few weeks on the job, my dad called, having just gotten off the phone with a detective in Miami Beach. Seems they caught the guy that stole my pack, impersonating me and using my passport to forge checks. They even let the kid talk to my dad. (being a minor, they call the parents) The kid tried his best, but my dad knew it wasn't me and then hung up.

So it was only a short distance to hitch from Palm Beach to Miami Beach. I went to the Police dept. front desk asking them if they had me in jail. Yup, they said, to which I informed them I must have escaped and then quickly showed them my ID saying that it wasn't really me they had booked in jail.

Anyhow, the detective came out, I explained what happened, and he then took me back to identify the "suspect" who was cowering sheepishly in a chair. I only had his first name, but damn if I didn't tell all I knew about that prick.

There was a "Lois Lane" reporter that had the police beat that picked up on this story, wanting to sit the real JW and phony JW ("mini me") together on the front steps of the station and take our pictures for a story. Well, the cops wouldn't let her have the phony me, so she just settled for the real me. The station front and stairs have a unique look, so years later when I'd watch Miami Vice on TV, I'd always recognize those steps I sat on for the picture.

Meanwhile, I had been accepted as a crewman on "Capt. Mike's Barefoot Adventures" that sails Windjammers around the Caribbean, but decided once I got my passport back, I'd rather head for Europe, so I quit my Elevator job and headed back to New Orleans.

Again, back then, there were few interstates, so the main road always followed the rail line. It was somewhere probably west of Tallahassee that I wandered into a yard to wait for a train, now that I had a general idea on how to do it. Back then, and even years later, the idea of crew changes never occurred to me. MOST every train seemed to stop in every yard, so it was no different than waiting at a bus stop.

I didn't especially want to be seen by the crew of this train, but I recall just walking past the head end (an F7 with B units), not looking directly at the engineer, no one waiving, until I came to an empty boxcar. Just as I hopped on, he aired up and pulled out, me thinking; whew, I just barely made that train. Only years later after talking to other riders, I came to realize he most likely was waiting for me to hop on before heading out. At the time, I really had no idea how the crews would handle someone boarding their train, especially in the South, where chain gangs still existed in a few counties where the Sheriff was still the LAW. I felt I was taking a real chance.

It must have been a junk train of some kind, cause I woke up the next morning, still short of New Orleans and hitched the rest of the way, taking up right where I'd left off; on my way to Europe, not much more than a month before...

I went to the Greyhound bus station and found a note in the phonebook from Scott, saying he'd signed on a freighter bound for Africa that by now had already sailed. I never saw him again.

So, anyone of you could tell stories about the characters you've met on the road. Hobos are about the only ones that understand cause you've all lived by your wits. I tell some of these stories elsewhere and maybe get a few polite smiles or a sideways look, everyone wondering why I'm not locked up. I learned long ago to keep my mouth shut in "polite company".